THE new look Highland Council has set a target of building 5000 homes in the next five years as it aims to combat the huge demand for housing in the region.
Almost 10,000 families or individuals are currently on the authority’s housing list and the SNP, Liberal Democrat and Labour-led coalition now wants 1000 homes constructed every year up to 2017.
Local authority leader Drew Hendry, who announced the administration’s programme yesterday after the parties formed an unlikely alliance following May’s elections, said it would work with the Scottish Government, housing associations and the private sector to meet the ambitious target, of which 600 will be council houses.
It represents a sea change for the authority which had not built council houses for 15 years before that, but 201 have now been constructed in the last two years across the Highlands and the administration wants to continue that trend in the future.
The right-to-buy council houses policy, which was introduced by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, was abolished by the Scottish Government last year because of the chronic shortage of affordable housing.
The authority owned 20,000 council houses more than 20 years ago but that figure is now down to 13,500 because of that policy.
There are currently 9,894 households on the Highland Housing Register, of which 7,544 are on the housing list and 2,350 tenants are seeking a transfer.
"We have set out a bold programme, which is ambitious but deliverable," said Councillor Hendry, who added an audit of all the vacant public and private properties in the Highlands would also be carried out in an attempt to bring them back into community use.
He said powers from forthcoming new legislation, which would allow local authorities to increase Council Tax payments on unoccupied properties, could be used.
Efforts to persuade the Treasury to write off the council’s £149 million housing debt will also continue.
Senior opposition councillor Margaret Davidson, a former chairwoman of the council’s housing committee, said 5000 homes was an ambitious target.
"That is a surprising number and I need to understand how they are going to be delivered," said Councillor Davidson, who ridiculed the coalition’s pledge to lobby for the huge housing debt to be scrapped because it had come to nothing in the last term, despite Highland Lib-Dem MP Danny Alexander’s role as chief secretary to the Treasury.
The council has also pledged to draw up an "economic recovery" plan to help the embattled Highland economy still reeling from the collapse of firms like construction company UBC.
It pledged to support the creation of jobs and ensure every 16 to 19-year-old seeking employment would be able to access a modern apprenticeship or further training.
About 200 of its lowest paid workers including cleaners and carers will receive an hourly rate of at least £7.20 from next April in a move which will cost £200,000.
However, in the face of shrinking public sector budgets the council stopped short of offering concrete assurances to its own 9000 strong workforce about their future. "We will do all we can to avoid compulsory redundances," the programme states.
Independent group leader Carolyn Wilson welcomed the policies but was keen to see how they would be paid for.
The administration’s leadership will present the programme to the full council at a meeting in Inverness next week (28.6) when it is expected to be rubber stamped.